The Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year is "post-truth." I can’t think of a better word to describe 2016.
Oxford defines post-truth as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." The term is closely linked to politics, referring a recent and growing political tendency to deemphasize facts while promoting rhetoric and emotional appeals. As a British publication, Oxford determined that post-truth was a relevant concept in the conversation regarding Brexit, the U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U.
Across the pond, of course, the term also lends itself to the recent U.S. presidential election, where the truth has been difficult to find.
In the months leading up to the election, President-elect Donald Trump asserted many fabrications as truth, including: that President Obama founded ISIS (with help from Hillary Clinton); that President Obama was not born in the United States; that climate change is a Chinese hoax; and that thousands of Muslims danced in the New Jersey streets after 9/11.
Mr. Trump is not the only one to take liberties with the facts. Fake news on all sides proliferated during the election season: Twenty fake news stories outperformed the top 20 real news stories in the last three months of the election.
Some of these are more credulity-stretching than others. One social media post, spread among liberal and African-American internet users, pictured a slave collar with a trademarked blue Tiffany & Co. card photoshopped on top. A caption on the image claimed the collar was on display at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and that Tiffany & Co. had a history of producing collars for wealthy white women to use on their slaves.
How is it that in an age with such high access to information, truth is no longer valued?
When our 24-hour, heavily self-curated social media feeds are our main source of information, and traditional news outlets are distrusted, a post-truth world is born. So how do we reignite the search for truth?
The following strategies might help:
1. Renew Our Commitment to Read Good Journalism
High journalistic standards and the freedom of the press are integral to our nation’s history. Journalists are educated and trained do execute their profession in service of the public. Though there is value in the ability for anyone to produce internet content, it does not invalidate the role of the press. Challenging the press to remain objective, timely, and investigative is essential, but rhetoric that simply dismisses the ethics of our media outlets is harmful, and subjects us all to the consequences of a post-truth world.
Social media is here to stay. But commitment to read varied, reliable, professional news sources, including international perspectives, is crucial. This will expose us to a breadth of information presented by journalists who are bound by professionalism and ethics.
2. Push to Eliminate Misleading Clickbait
Just as consumers advocated for net neutrality and pushed to eliminate the annoying pop-up ads that once littered the internet, it’s time for the public to take a stand against fake news clickbait. While Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has recently come under fire for allowing fake news to flourish on the site, it is up to internet users to put a stop to the production of this bogus material. While there may be a momentary emotional rush from posting that maddening article criticizing political opponents, the result is the financial success of a method of advertising that rewards the sensational and untrue. A campaign against clickbait will force websites to eliminate this method of making revenue. Pop-ups are gone. Clickbait can go, too.
3. Attempt to De-Weaponize Social Media
While Melania Trump’s proposed campaign against internet bullying elicited giggles because of her husband’s Twitter habits, there is a need for education on how to de-weaponize social media. In recent decades American schools have created comprehensive education programs against bullying. As a result, I believe the climate in schools has changed. Similar education regarding civility and maintaining a good impression on the internet could help curb the vitriol found on the internet for future generations. By teaching the ways that social media bullying may lead to ruined reputation, job termination, or even loss of life, there is hope for change.
4. Participate in a Moral Revival
Rev. William J. Barber II has called America to a “moral revival.” Barber, along with other faith leaders, have called for a return of faith-based morality to American society and government. The movement emphasizes justice and care for society’s vulnerable people, eliminating discrimination of all kinds, and striving for peace and love. Truth is a key ingredient in this movement. Government and social leaders cannot do their best work for the citizens if there is a lack of access to the truth. Even worse, if leaders take advantage of dishonesty, everyone loses.
5. Deepen Relationships
A final way to fight a post-truth world is by deepening personal relationships in order to seek space for emotional venting and support. For many who spend days alone at a desk or on the couch in the evenings, engaging in sensational social media use is a way to find emotional expression or release. For generations, people have complained to their friends or family within earshot about the state of the world. Today we take to the internet to let it all out. By committing to share our views, fears, and opinions with real people, we find an outlet for our stress and emotions that is dictated by the norms of civility, not the norms of the internet.
Our post-modern world is here to stay, but I don’t believe we must accept a post-truth world forever. The strain of the recent political season can serve as an eye-opener to the value and necessity of truth. We don’t have to be the post-truth generation.
Let’s commit to do better and make the 2016 word of the year passé.